Netherlands Formally Legalizes Euthanasia

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The Netherlands officially made euthanasia legal in April, 2002.

This move is largely a formality. While it was technically illegal before this for a doctor to kill a patient, since 1981 the authorities have not prosecuted as long as the doctor followed guidelines written by the Royal Dutch Medical Association.

Over the years these guidelines have been interpreted more and more loosely. For example, the new law preserves the old guideline that a doctor must believe that the "patient’s suffering is lasting and unbearable". In 1993 a court ruled that this includes "mental suffering". The case involved Holly Boscher, who became depressed after the deaths of her two children and said she wanted to be buried with them. A psychiatrist met her four times over a five-week period, never attempted any treatment, and then helped her kill herself. The court declared, "suffering is suffering", and found the psychiatrist innocent of any wrong-doing.

How serious is the Netherlands about enforcing the guidelines? In a recent interview with a Dutch magazine, Els Borst, the minister of health, was asked if a doctor who did not follow the guidelines – and who is therefore at least technically guilty of murder – should be allowed to continue to practice medicine. Borst replied, "a doctor who makes a stupid medical mistake with fatal consequences, can thereafter still be a very good doctor". Later in the same interview she was asked about people who seek suicide because they are "tired of life". She replied that she personally knew two people who "were bored sick, but alas were not bored to death", and that she is "at peace" with giving them suicide pills.

The United Nations Human Rights commission issued a critical report while the law was being debated a year before. Their concerns included: 1. While the law requires the patient to voluntarily request death, it does nothing to insure that the patient has not been pressured into this decision. 2. The "safeguards" may be ignored over time. Under the present law, in the year 2000 only three doctors were prosecuted for violating the guidelines, and none faced any penalty for his actions. 3. Anyone 12 or over can now request to be killed. Anyone over 16 does not need parental consent. Newborns are routinely being euthanized, who clearly have not given any consent. 4. No one will investigate the case to see if the doctor has followed the guidelines until after the patient is dead, when it would seem to be too late to do anything about any improprieties.

About 2,000 cases of euthanasia are presently reported each year. The government conducted a study in 1991 that found there were actually 11,840 euthanasias and assisted suicides that year -- over 9% of all deaths in the country. Of these, the patient did not request or consent to being killed in 5,981 cases. A doctor involved in 30 such deaths explained that it would have been "rude" to discuss the matter with the patients, as they all "knew that their conditions were incurable".

The new law was largely propelled by the under-reporting revealed by this study. Advocates of the law suggested, plausibly enough, that doctors concealed euthanasias out of fear that they might be prosecuted for not following the guidelines. The new law solves this problem by eliminating the requirement that cases of euthanasia be routinely reported to prosecutors for investigation. Instead, a committee consisting of a lawyer, a doctor, and an "expert on ethics" will review each case and decide if it should be forwarded to prosecutors. The definition of the "expert on ethics" indicates that he must, basically, be a pro-euthanasia activist.

The only other place in the world where euthanasia is officially legal is the state or Oregon. Euthanasia was legalized in the Northern Territory of Australia in 1996, but under the Australian constitution the federal government can overturn a state law, and this law was struck down after nine months.

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Posted 19 May 2002.

Copyright 2001 by Greene County Right to Life
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